Hackerston: the new frontier of Tech City

A few weeks ago Hannah Donovan, founder of This is My Jam,  wrote about her company’s move out of Shoreditch. This came as a follow-on from Cory Doctorow‘s piece about the slow death of Tech City. It’s also now been four years since the government’s announcement of the “Tech City” program and a few weeks since Gerard Grech joined Tech City as CEO. So it seems like a good time to have a conversation about the geography and nature of startups in East London.

As of late-May, Good Night Lamp will be moving out of the cocoon of Shoreditch Works into a larger, brighter space along the canal next to Haggerston Overground Station. My co-founder Daniel Fogg, whose company has setup the space, has named it Hackerston.

Location, location, location

A totally predictable (if at the time quite shocking) by-product of “Tech City” has been the ever increasing rent prices and business rates around Shoreditch. This was always going to happen and frankly the fact that a Zone 1 area used to be so cheap was never going to last. This is London after-all, one of the most expensive cities in the world where carparks sell for half a million pounds.

Back in 2007 when I moved to live in Hackney I was paying £15/sqft for space in Bethnal Green which didn’t used to be so safe but was close to home. Seven years later, I’m living in a four letter postcode, south-of-the-river, commuting in for 45 minutes every day on the Northern Line, with an office in the heart of Shoreditch that costs me more than my share of my flat, or around £37.5/sqft. I call this Tax On City Living. It’s the price you pay for living in London and there’s very little entrepreneurs can do about it.

IOT is the next tech boom

Between 2007 & 2010 my office neighbours were web developers and technology startups. Being the only person in the room who can design products started to be a bit boring. But thankfully because of a growing community of startups in the connected product / internet of things space, things have changed. For evidence of this, just look at the #iotlondon Meetup; we have over 2,700 members and our Meetups are regularly at full capacity. There aren’t many out there, but it’s just like Matt‘s map back in 2007, all you need are a few key high profile companies to start a revolution.

Tech City isn’t a postcode

The thing I’ve realised is that not unlike “punk”, there is no real definition or location to Tech City. For some it means anything east of Old Street station. For others it’s squarely the Old Street / Hoxton / Liverpool Street triangle. For a third group, it’s the Olympic park. It doesn’t matter really. The thing that needs rethinking is what we mean when we mean “Tech” with a capital T.

The Prime Minister is giving lots of support to the internet of things, and so I’d like to think this will help colour what people think when they hear Tech City in the future. All tech, hard tech, consumer tech, web, software, whatever is exciting and innovative. Silicon Valley has long ago stopped directly referring to the companies that gave it its name. The same will happen here and maybe the only thing that will end up making any sense 10 years from now, is the proximity to the City.

Haggerston here we come!

There’s lots of value in being in the same room with like-minded people who are all building things in the new world of the internet of things. So we’re looking for small teams to join us and make Hackerston a place for great people and awesome products. We’re going beyond Silicon Roundabout. It’s going to be exciting.

A litmus test for the internet of things

It’s taken me about 2 months to work out how to show the differences between products that companies say are iot and those that possibly aren’t. I suspect I actually need to explain it but I’d rather have a good conversation on Twitter about it so I can tweak things accordingly.

For clarity, a lock means it’s proprietary.
No lock means it’s open source.
Absence of means its not provided by the company directly.


Introducing #iotangels

There are many reasons why the UK is a great space for internet of things startups: access to the creative industries, manufacturing, advertising, technologists. Funding isn’t one of them sadly as I highlighed in a talk at a Policy Connect event last week at the Design Museum. Which is why I’ll be starting an angel fund specifically focused on supporting internet of things startups.

If you’d like to help, please join us for dinner.

Gonzo Products: how crowdfunding is changing the internet of things

I gave a talk about this at Future Everything last week. As usual the shape of the talk only really came together an hour before (this drives conference organisers nuts) and I thought I’d write it up. If you come to IOT Forum in Cambridge or Thingscon in Berlin you can ask me about this some more.

The dust has settled after an eventful start to 2014 (CES was full of #iot, Nest’s acquisition, SXSW and last week’s OR acquisition) and it’s time for the Milan furniture Fair (which I used to go to when I lived there and in the Tinker years). You couldn’t find an event less in touch with what’s happening in the world of connected products: chairs, ceramics, tables, lampshades. Design in those circles is as artform catering to a rich clientele where the highest form of self-aggrandising for a designer is to complain about technologies they weren’t involved in. None of those products are connected and most of them are designed by professionals with no interest in the internet as a transformative space or set of technologies and principles. It’s a shame because whatever conversation could have happened between product designers & technologists has now been made redundant. In 2014, we are experiencing a new era of product development, what I’m now calling Gonzo Products.

What is a Gonzo product?

- Born on a crowdfunding platform The team of people working on the product exists solely for the purposes of catering to the campaign’s needs, not necessarily to create a bigger business or more products.

- Raising the money it needs to look successful, not the money it needs to make it. Lots of smart products on crowdfunding platforms are trying to look successful to investors first, not necessarily raise the money needed to make the product viable. Any product looking to raise less than £50K to manufacture a product from scratch is basically either very well supported with existing partners or catering to a completely different audience: investors. This is counter-intuitive as crowdfunding was initially developed to help support the early stages of a project. In this case Gonzo Product teams are using crowdfunding as a marketing, market research & finally market validation tool. It’s easier to find angel funding if you’ve got a successful campaign than if you don’t which means crowdfunding is a new way for investors to manage their deal flow for hardware startups.

- Not businesses, projects. Gonzo Product teams will potentially only ever work together to achieve one product only and disband after (see Air Quality Egg).

- Selling the #iot dream, not the reality. Most very high profile Gonzo Products primarily show what the internet of things can be and should be. Selling the dream, not the realities. This is problematic as making a product people can buy, that can be supported and is sold in John Lewis should be the real criteria for success when it comes to #iot. Most gonzo products will be closer to design fiction than they will be to commercial reality and this might influence investors, journalists and other entrepreneurs in the same space but more importantly consumers.

Is this good or bad? I don’t think it’s either. It’s a new product and business space. How much power will Gonzo Products have on the way in which the internet of things develops this year? Plenty. But people like me who are keen to make real businesses and products just have to hold on and learn from them.

A map of UK maker spaces

As part of my work with the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, I’ve been putting together a map of hacker / maker spaces in the UK. These spaces are really important in linking a person with a project idea to a community with resources. Maker spaces are also more than physical resources, they can be a platform for someone to meet like minded people in their area, find co-founders, find the impetus to work on a project that’s been sitting on the side of the kitchen table, or even find the necessary resources to start a business. I’ve only mapped out the physical spaces for now (mostly for the purposes of the report I’m writing) but if you want the complete list of people who also just meet and hang out have a look at the Hacker Space list.

The process of Connecting Products

Last December, I was asked by the Connected Digital Economy Catapult to help them out scoping a possible Connected Products Studio. This is great fun for me as I have tangible experience of building connected products for installations, industrial applications and now the consumer market.

The first thing Maurizio Pilu, the Catapult’s Director asked me to do is put together a consultation workshop where, instead of working in isolation, we would reach out to the possible audience or contributors to such a dedicated space. We ran this workshop last week at the Royal Society of the Arts and were extremely lucky to have attendees from the entire landscape of #iot in the room. I reached out to many friends of course and so did Pilgrim Beart who is helping shape the feasibility report with me.

Consultants (Tom Armitage, Ben Ward, Lee Omar, Graham Hitchen, Georgina Voss, Nick Hunn, Paul Tanner), startups (Radfan, MyJoulo, KNRY, BleepBleeps, bergcloud), incubators (Bethnal Green Ventures), maker spaces (DoesLiverpool), SMEs (PAN Studio, Codasign, Sodabody>data>space, Flexeye, 1248.io, AlertMe, Xively) and corporations (Intel, Cisco, BBC R&D, Ogilvy Digital Labs, SapientNitro) came together and very generously spent the day with me teasing out what the key pain points were in developing a connected product. We then took those and tried to offer possible solutions with the skills in each of the teams. I’ve been to quite a lot of these workshops back in the days of the IOT Special Interest Group  and wanted to live up to the work Graham and Rachel Jones had done.

Pain Points

Maurizio, Pilgrim & I worked on a shortlist of pain points that someone would encounter if they were building a connected product and we put this to the community in a questionnaire via the usual social media channels. They were:

  • Coming up with an idea
  • knowing what hardware to use
  • paying for that hardware
  • knowing what software to build with
  • paying for that software
  • connecting the software and hardware in a scalable way
  • developing a web/mobile service for the product
  • access to space
  • access to prototyping facilities
  • developing a proof of concept
  • doing user research
  • reaching out to potential customers
  • finding co-founders
  • finding corporate partners
  • finding manufacturing partners who can help with small quantities

Through the a morning session conversation the top 5 emerged as:

  • Connecting hardware & software
  • Developing a proof of concept (specifically access to the right expertise)
  • Doing user research / reaching to potential customers (access to experts in user research was also part of this)
  • Finding corporate partners (this related strongly to being to plan the route to market)

The crux of this landscape of pain points felt like it was a lot about meeting the right people at the right time in the process of commercialising a connected product which got me thinking about what a typical process looks like at the moment. I’ve also highlighted the opportunities that were brainstormed that day that felt like they might be totally new and not trying to replicate existing services. All these thoughts will go and feed the report I’ll be writing up for the CDEC in the next month or so. Fun times.


What I learnt from running an internet of things pop-up shop


Today was the last day of Works(Shop) which I’ve been running in my office on most Fridays & Saturdays since end of August. It’s been a very interesting experiment in what the retail experience of consumer internet of things products is about. We went on the road too, showing the products to the British Computing Society, in the Science Museum during an event organised by Flexeye, one of my clients and at Thingmonk where I was a speaker. The clear winners in terms of sales were Little Printers, Bare Conductive kits and a late comer Moistly. Here’s what I think they did right: cute & often self-explanatory packaging or demos. Selling is an emotional exercise. People often buy for others more than they buy for themselves. I used to work in a local art store in Canada as a student, I know.

Bare’s packaging is exquisite. People didn’t care much for what they were buying, they just bought them because it felt instantly that this would be fun and something good for the kids. They’ve thought about this a lot it’s clear and it pays off.

For Little Printer, I’d selected specifically non-geek content to showcase as I knew the people who might buy it would be interested in giving it to someone else or convincing a sceptical loved one of its value. Showing them a publication that showed the current value of bitcoin wouldn’t have helped in that case.

The “For Dummies” books weren’t popular strangely. I think it might be that the brand doesn’t appeal to a geek audience even if the books are awesome (my friends wrote most of the ones we sold). Someone also remarked that if they were going to get their daughter involved, to buy a book “for dummies” wasn’t very encouraging. I agree. Maybe Wiley should have a sub-brand for kids, same content, just a different cover or something.

Finally pricing was really key in the success of Moistly. It was cheap. £13 for a little bit of intelligence when it comes to your plants. Easy. No brainer. It’s hard to do when you’re a startup but it works.

All in all, I’m happy to have done it and allowed products to find new audiences and learn about what I should be doing to get Good Night Lamp to be presented in the best possible light. And it was fun to work with SuperNova studio on this as they designed an awesome brand for it.

A very merry internet of things Christmas

It’s that time of the year where people try to connect their Christmas lights to the internet. This used to be a rather maker-based endeavour but it’s taken on new heights with the past year’s corporate interest in the topic. So here are the top 5 connected Christmas lights projects:

1. OpenPicus lets you control the lights on the Christmas tree in Rome’s airport.

2. Moorescloud let you control the lights on the Christmas tree in Darling Harbour in Sydney.

3. Cheerlights lets you tweet colours to some Christmas lights in the IOBridge office.

4. Cheertree lets you tweet colours to it.

5. And of course you can make it yourself thanks to this How to guide from Make magazine.

PS: Last minute addition to the list is Sony’s NFC Christmas tree (thanks Pierre)

Happy Christmas!